Is Southwest retreating on its vaccine mandate?

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

And if they do end up retreating, does that prove that last week’s Southwest service disruptions were due to a secret anti-mandate sickout by employees after all?

Well, no. We’re more than a week on from the airline suffering a wave of cancellations and delays and, as far as I know, no one’s publicly taken credit for organizing a sickout. Southwest management, the pilots union, and the FAA all insist there was no deliberate work stoppage. However, it’s undeniably true that some Southwest workers are unhappy about the company’s vaccine mandate and want it rescinded. Several hundred gathered in protest yesterday outside the airline’s headquarters in Dallas with signs reading “Terminate the mandate,” “Freedom not force,” and “No jabs for jobs.” And the pilots union’s lawsuit against Southwest seeking to enjoin the mandate is a matter of record. Anti-vax sentiment among some employees there is real. Whether it inspired a covert sickout is another matter.

Today brings news that the company has suddenly tweaked one of the rules it set for its mandate. Is that the first step towards rolling back the policy?

Maybe.

Southwest Airlines has scrapped a plan to put unvaccinated employees who have applied for but haven’t received a religious or medical exemption on unpaid leave starting by a federal deadline in December…

Executives at both carriers in recent days have tried to reassure employees about job security under the mandate, urging them to apply for exemptions if they can’t get vaccinated for medical or for a sincerely held religious belief…

Southwest’s senior vice president of operations and hospitality, Steve Goldberg, and Julie Weber, vice president and chief people officer, wrote to staff on Friday that if employees’ requests for an exemption haven’t been approved by Dec. 8, they could continue to work while following mask and distancing guidelines until the request has been reviewed…

Southwest’s Goldberg and Weber told staff that if their request for exemption is denied, employees can reapply if the staff member “has new information or circumstances it would like the Company to consider.”

That sounds like basic fairness to me. If someone has a bona fide medical reason that prevents them from getting vaccinated, it’s unjust to suspend them without pay while their exemption request is being processed. They might suffer from that missed income due to their financial circumstances. Keep them on staff and working until their exemption request is approved or rejected for whatever reason.

Looking around online, though, some people (like Drudge) seem to be misreading the story and concluding that Southwest has decided not to put the unvaxxed on unpaid leave, period. Not so. They’re not putting them on unpaid leave *until* there’s a ruling on their request for an exemption. That’s all.

But there might be more to this than meets the eye. If Southwest fears that it’ll lose a meaningful number of employees to the mandate, whether due to resignations or firings or both, it could take a very liberal policy towards granting medical or religious exemptions. If they start handing out exemptions to anyone who wants one, no matter how flimsy the reasoning, then they’ve rescinded the mandate in all but name. Word will spread among Southwest workers that you can get an exemption essentially as a matter of right. The pressure from the top on unvaccinated employees to get their shots will melt away.

An extremely generous exemption policy might be Southwest’s only option if it wants to relax the mandate, in fact. Because they’re a federal contractor, they’re bound by Biden’s vaccine mandate. And the mandate for contractors is stricter than the one for private businesses with 100 or more employees. The latter are permitted to let employees get tested weekly in lieu of vaccination; the former aren’t. If you work for a contractor, you either get vaxxed or you get an exemption or you’re out. There’s nothing Southwest can do about that until a court strikes down Biden’s mandate; their only option would be to stop contracting with the federal government, which I’m sure they don’t want to do.

Which means generous exemptions are their only way to accommodate unvaxxed workers. Given that executives are “urging” employees to seek those exemptions out if they don’t want to get their shots, per the excerpt above, I wonder if Southwest really might be angling to erode the mandate that’s been forced upon them via the exemption loophole.

Per the Washington Examiner, it sounds like there might even be a grace period for unvaccinated employees whose requests for an exemption are denied for whatever reason:

A spokesman for Southwest confirmed the policy change to the Washington Examiner on Tuesday. He said unvaccinated staff members will be allowed to come to work after the deadline as long as they follow the masking and distancing guidelines applicable to their position.

“While we intend to grant all valid requests for medical and/or religious accommodations, in the event a request is not granted, the company will provide adequate time for an employee to become fully vaccinated while continuing to work and adhering to safety protocols,” the spokesman said.

Again, there’s no “masking and distancing” alternative for employees at a federal contractor. They either get vaccinated or they get an exemption or they get fired. Sounds like Southwest is looking to bend that rule a bit by letting unvaxxed workers stay on for some “adequate” period to give them a second chance to rethink and get their shots. How long is that “adequate time,” though? A week? A month? Or more like a year, by which time the White House might have relaxed its federal mandate, allowing Southwest to relax its own policy?

Stay tuned. Here’s a local segment on the anti-mandate protests outside Southwest HQ.